Starring Marc Evan Jackson as Sparks Nevada and Mark Gagliardi as his faithful Martian companion, Croach the Tracker. Also starring Linda Cardellini, Joshua Malina, Annie Savage, and Nathan Fillion. Recorded August 6, 2011.
I love a bottle episode. To me, a bottle episode serves as the best way to show off the strength of your characters and the relationships the writers and actors have built over the course of the series to that point. It could be argued that every episode of Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars is a bottle episode (Marc Evan Jackson argued it with me just last night), but there’s something really satisfying about putting all of these complex characters who are in the midst of various emotional journeys into a inescapable place and forcing them to deal with one another. This could have been a very, well, boring episode about moving forward Sparks and Rebecca’s romantic relationship and introducing some elements that will pay off in the coming months (Red and Cactoid Jim meeting, the saloon’s artificial intelligence needing an upgrade, the Barkeep’s obsessive stance toward trouble in his place), but it’s a testament to the actors who play the parts and, frankly, how much Acker and I care about these characters that it’s much more than that.
At the risk of sounding overly self-congratulatory (too late, I think), here are some things that really tickle me about this episode, which I think is among the best we’ve ever done:
-The way that Croach (Mark Gagliardi) regards Nathan Fillion‘s Cactoid Jim. As we got to know Nathan better over the course of doing these episodes, Jim increasingly came to resemble the actor who played him. That is to say, a humble and generous fellow, an incredibly nice guy who happens to be a terrific talent and is so infuriatingly handsome that men and women alike become tongue-tied in his presence. We made Croach (and Rebecca Rose Rushmore, in last month’s episode) very much a stand-in for the audience (and, frankly, all of us) when it came to their encounters with Jim. I think the humor is compounded by Sparks’ frustration with how great Jim is and by Croach’s infatuation with him (which also sort of echoes the Jackson/Fillion/Gagliardi relationship).
-The way that Busy Philipps‘ Red Plains Rider regards Cactoid Jim also cracks me up. Busy is so effortlessly funny, and seeing her dismiss Cactoid Jim is utterly in character for her; it’s also a variation of the blunt persona Busy has both in real life and in the roles she’s played in Freaks and Geeks and Cougar Town. Red’s rejection of Jim is played so hard and so well that the coming month’s episodes are made the stronger for it.
-The way that Linda Cardellini, as Rebecca Rose Rushmore, throws herself at Sparks. This isn’t a character we’ve really seen Linda play before on TV or in the movies, and she clearly has fun with it. Of course, a lot of the humor comes from the way in which it nonplusses Sparks.
-With Josh Malina (who is now basically a full-time cast member) as the Barkeep and Annie Savage as the saloon’s AI, we expand the world of Sparks Nevada in a really satisfying way. Both of these characters will play major roles in the story arc that’s gaining steam this month, but what’s really fun about what they do in this episode is the notion that everyone — including these seemingly background characters — know Sparks better than he knows himself.
-There were some really nice physical bits in this episode about which you can hear the audience laughing. When Nathan and Gags enter late in the episode they pantomime having jet-packs. And the “civic minded gentlemen” who help Jim and Croach quell the alien invasion(s) are played by Hal Lublin, James Urbaniak, and our pal Todd Cooper (who, usually, pulls curtain and creates an air of conviviality backstage), all of whom appropriately hammed it up.
-There’s also a fun meta-commentary going on in this episode, not just in the way that some of the characters interact with Cactoid Jim/Nathan Fillion, but in small ways. For instance, the audience has a certain expectation of Nathan as a space-cowboy, and while we tried to make him a distinct character from Firefly‘s Mal Reynolds, there is also some material to be mined there. Likewise, hearing Linda and Busy support each other here, one can’t help but think of them in Freaks and Geeks and their complex relationship on that show.
(Incidentally, one of my favorite backstage moments from the show involves these two. Short on time, we were trying to rehearse this episode of Sparks, and Busy and Linda were sitting on the couch together whispering and giggling like teenagers. When I asked them to be quiet, Busy went on to tell me that this is how they’ve always been; they’ve known each other since they were teenagers back at McKinley High. Linda then chimed in to say that they went to work together at County General in Chicago. They mapped out their decades-long friendship in such a charming way that it didn’t much matter that we didn’t make it through rehearsal, though I think Jackson did threaten them with detention).
The run of Sparks Nevada episodes that are currently podcasting is my favorite. It culminates in our musical episode, which comes in a few months. I’m really proud of the work we — Acker and I, our director Aaron Ginsburg, composer Andy Paley, and all of the actors — did in these six or so months. I hope you enjoy listening to them as much as we enjoyed making them.